Hustle & Flow's success, a much-needed local debate has emerged about violence in hip-hop. But it's a debate whose partisans too often refrain from really engaging the art and culture they're arguing about.
It's completely disingenuous to praise hip-hop (or any other kind of art or culture, for that matter) that is driven by extreme content while refusing to acknowledge that content. But it's equally wrong to condemn the raw content of a piece of culture without considering its context, because that context - execution, attitude, meaning - is what makes or breaks it, what separates art from exploitation.
Into this debate comes a local record, released a few weeks ago, that demands to be dealt with: Me Being Me, the second album from Hypnotize Minds rapper Frayser Boy, who, according to Hustle & Flow director Craig Brewer, wrote the verses to the film's "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" while Hypnotize Minds honcho Juicy J and film producer John Singleton were negotiating a price.
In some ways, Me Being Me is an entirely typical crunk/gangsta record. It's drenched in street violence so familiar that it risks cliché. And even when his subject isn't gutter-level gunplay, Frayser Boy goes through the motions of the genre's other rote subjects: alcohol (the "Sippin' on Some Syrup" sequel "I Got Dat Drank," with Houston success stories Mike Jones and Paul Wall), weed ("My Smokin' Session"), and women (the depressingly familiar objectification-bordering-on-outright-misogyny of "She Got Me Sayin' Damn" and "If She a Hoe").
But listen closely and you'll see that the context - the execution, attitude, and meaning - of this standard hip-hop violence is different on Me Being Me than it is on most Hypnotize Minds releases.
The album cover shows one man being robbed at gunpoint by another. But Frayser Boy plays both roles, the robber and the robbed, the perpetrator and the victim. It's the perfect image for an ostensible gangsta-rap album where the protagonist seems ready to commit any crime necessary but also seems victimized by the culture.
An imposing figure, Frayser Boy plays the role of Three 6 Mafia enforcer, but as cold-blooded as he is, he's never gleeful about it. And his record doesn't glamorize street violence; it merely depicts it. Clichés, after all, tend to emerge out of ubiquity, out of truth. Since the Geto Boys made the paranoia and psychological exhaustion of the so-called thug life explicit with "Mind Playing Tricks on Me," this has been a topic too often obscured, but it's one that animates Me Being Me.
The moment that unlocks the record comes late, on the song "Ridin'," a North Memphis coming-of-age tale ("Turned to the street cause momma couldn't teach me/How to be a man/The drug dealers had to reach me") where Frayser Boy casually notes, "Never killed a man, but I damn near tried to." In most cases this would be an unremarkable statement - very few of us have ever taken a life. But what tends to be most reckless about hardcore hip-hop is how it exaggerates the transgressions it documents, making acts of violence or brutality seem more common, and more acceptable, than they really are.
Plenty of rappers, in the words of Will Smith, kill people on records. What you realize at this moment is that despite all the threats Me Being Me contains, there's no follow through. And this is reality for far too many people in the world Frayser Boy dissects: not committing society's worst transgressions, but being prepared to do so if necessary as a component of survival.
There's another key moment late on this record, also from a song ("Seen Things") about growing up hard in Frayser's Greenbriar neighborhood. The song describes getting beaten up after school and how the constant threat of violence hardens a kid. And it contains this: "I went to jail for some shit that I got into/I did some things that I regret, I never meant to/But when you're young trouble's easy to get into."
"Regret" is a word that you don't hear often in records like this, and it creates a moral core around which Frayser Boy's crime-cultural tales revolve. There's nothing cartoonish or romantic about the record's vision of street violence. It's not pretty, for sure, but it's a reality that is captured with artistry and honesty, free of exploitation.